1. Why arbitration makes sense

This article shows foreign businesses the necessity of dispute resolution clauses quite plainly and provides assistance in choosing appropriate alternatives to the Vietnamese civil courts.

Disadvantages of Vietnamese courts

Most contracts in North America and Europe specify in detail all of the parties‘ obligations and will be closely watched for the effectiveness of its clauses. The contract’s legal enforceability, however, is widely regarded as a given.

On the other hand, contracts between foreign investors and Vietnamese entities or with a reference to Vietnam that establishes Vietnamese jurisdiction should always specify [JL1] the question “what institution will decide any disputes and in which language and what national law is to be applied?”

In this circumstance, without a dispute resolution clause, Vietnamese courts will have jurisdiction over a possible dispute. But interested parties must consider the particularities of Vietnamese courts in comparison to Western rule-of-law courts. According to Transparency International, the risk of corrupted decisions remains, and almost one-fifth of surveyed Vietnamese households that have been to court declared that they had paid bribes at least once (Global Corruption Barometer 2011). Many businesses therefore avoid Vietnamese courts, as the existence of bribes deters them (Global Integrity 2011; USAID’s Vietnam Provincial Competitiveness Index 2011). Besides the unfortunately persistent risk of corruption, the Vietnamese judiciary, despite improvement efforts, continues to struggle with additional problems: Many Vietnamese judges lack adequate legal training and are appointed through personal contacts with party leaders or based on their political views, as a 2012 study by the United States Dept. of State revealed. Extremely low judicial salaries and short office terms of five years that must be renewed through a new appointment amplify the judiciary’s dependence on the Communist Party’s sympathy and on bribes. Furthermore, there is the systemic problem that rule-of-law and a single-party-system are mutually exclusive, due to the practical lack of separation of powers (Andersson 2012). The term rule-of-law in its Vietnamese translation means rules of the state, therefore rules of the Communist Party running the single-party state. Considering these factors, putting potential disputes into the hands of the Vietnamese judiciary is not advisable, because the possibility of corrupted decisions and political pressure or incompetent judges must still be taken into account. It is also important to note that, similar to other countries with an independent court system and a strong emphasis on the rule-of-law, companies may prefer to see delicate affairs arbitrated, rather than see their commercial disputes become a matter of public record.

Advantages of arbitration

The right arbitration center provides independent decisions and professional competence. It is usually possible to select a pool of arbitrators trusted by both parties in the clause, which might lead to a wider acceptance of a possible arbitrational decision. It is important to consider arbitrator candidates based on their expertise in the relevant business field. Most arbitration centers provide renowned experts for certain fields of work.

  1. Which arbitration court is right?

Selecting an appropriate arbitration venue is a key component in designing any dispute resolution clause A company may decide upon a Vietnamese arbitrational court, for instance the Vietnamese International Arbitration Centre (VIAC), or an offshore arbitrational court, such as the Singapore International Arbitration Centre (SIAC). To decide which venue is the best fit, the following factors must be carefully considered:

Project size

For major projects with an investment sum of more than roughly $[JL2] 5 million, choosing an international arbitration court is generally recommended. At this level, the problem of cost pressure (see infra) is likely to be neglected. An international tribunal’s decision is also more likely to be accepted by the parties, as a lack of competence on the the arbitrator’s part and any (remote) possibility of political pressure on the arbitrators is therefore eliminated.

Location of seizable assets - enforcement risks of foreign arbitrational awards

Another major factor is the location of the contractual partner’s assets that may be seized when enforcing a possible arbitrational award. If the assets are mainly located in Vietnam, a foreign arbitrational court’s decision must be enforced there - a tougher task than enforcing a domestic award. Indeed, Vietnam became a member of the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Arbitral Awards of 1958 (NYC) in 1995, and therefore foreign arbitrational awards of the 149 member states can generally be enforced. However, there is a risk of a substantial delay in completing enforcement, as an application to the Ministry of Justice and further explanations and a court date leading to an appealable decision are necessary for enforcement. Furthermore, the competent Vietnamese enforcement court may reject the arbitrational award. According to Article V of the NYC, this is possible in the case of an arbitrational award’s violation of domestic laws or public orders. The Vietnamese Civil Code refers to this as the “principles of Vietnamese laws”, and the Vietnamese judiciary has made broad use of it (Tam Shu Ching et al. 2012). In one case, for example, rejecting the arbitrational award of a foreign company was based on a missing construction permit (Tyco Services Singapore Pte Ltd v Leighton Contractors Vietnam).

Pressure of cost

One should take into consideration that the costs of on- and offshore arbitration differ widely. For a value in dispute of approximately $4 million, for instance, the cost of arbitration at the VIAC is roughly $62,000 if one arbitrator is assigned to the case, as opposed to about $117,000 at the SIAC.  Not only are the costs for an offshore arbitration substantially higher, but that option can create additional costs for parties, such as travel expenses for parties, witnesses and lawyers. Furthermore, the hourly rates of local lawyers at the international arbitration court are usually higher than the rates of Vietnamese lawyers, (Shouzhi et al. 2009). The same applies to expert’s opinions and other experts. The risk of expensive litigation can put less liquid companies under pressure to accept even unfavorable settlements. Therefore, the cheaper onshore arbitration can often be more beneficial to companies with fewer financial resources.

Complexity and specialty of the subject matter of the contract and potential issue

Vietnamese arbitration courts, such as VIAC, have a high legal competence. But domestic arbitrational courts cannot yet provide internationally recognized experts on the same level as foreign tribunals. The main reason for this is the comparatively low fee of an arbitrator in Vietnam. Decisions regarding business transactions of high complexity or contracts focusing on highly specialized fields are more likely to be mutually accepted if the parties choose a more expensive foreign arbitrator with special expertise.

(Hidden) state-owned enterprises

When state-owned enterprises are involved, an offshore arbitration clause should be used. This ensures that the arbitrator handling the case is free of any authoritarian exertion of influence by the state-owned party. In theory, the follow-up problem of the enforcement of judgment in Vietnam remains, but the current development shows that the positive award strengthens a company’s negotiating position with the business partner. The same applies to hidden state-owned enterprises - companies that are de facto influenced by the government, for instance those that share ownership through state-owned enterprises’ subsidiaries. The contractual partner’s status as “state-owned” should always be considered very carefully.

Special case: Intellectual property

In special cases, where intellectual property is concerned, the contracts must ensure that no official interim measures are cut off by the arbitration clause. Arbitration courts are also able to issue interim measures. But as the case arises, an opening clause should be considered where Vietnamese courts or authorities such as the Market Management Bureau normally provide more effective interim relief. 

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  1. How it is done

Vietnamese law allows dispute resolution clauses in commercial contracts explicitly through the Law 54/2010/QH12 on Commercial Arbitration, („LCA“). An effective dispute resolution clause withdraws Vietnamese courts’ jurisdiction of the particular case and establishes the appointed arbitral tribunal’s jurisdiction. The LCA follows the UNCITRAL model law as an international standard for procedural rules, and the lawmakers’ intention is indeed arbitration-friendly.

Once the decision is made regarding whether and where an arbitration tribunal should be used for disputes arising from the contract, the following points should be cleared:

  • Applicable law: The applicable law can be chosen freely in cases with a foreign element according to Article 14 Nr. 2 LCA. The chosen applicable law should also influence the selection of arbitrators, as they should have a legal background in the particular national law.
  • Court’s language: This can be freely selected according to Article 10 Nr. 2 LCA.
  • Number of arbitrators: Several arbitrators might give a more balanced-out decision as a collegial formation. Arbitration costs will however rise accordingly.
  • Appointing a particular arbitrator: This is important in cases that require experts:

The dispute resolution clause becomes effective if the requirements of Articles 16, 18 and 19 LCA are met, e.g. through a written agreement.

Conclusion

The question of whether or not to have a dispute resolution clause in contracts in Vietnam can be answered with a clear yes. However, deciding on the right place for dispute resolution can involve much complexity, as a number of factors must be thoroughly taken into account. One hopes that 2010’s arbitration-friendly LCA keeps its promises as it is being implemented, and that the Vietnamese judiciary will reliably enforce domestic and foreign arbitrational awards alike. Doing so would send the right signal to foreign investors with reservations about undertaking litigation in Vietnam.